The Ferry

Trip Start Sep 02, 2011
Trip End Sep 11, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Minnesota
Saturday, September 3, 2011

I'm shivering in the damp air at the Grand Portage dock on Lake Superior. It’s six forty five in the morning, and Julie and I are standing alongside the Voyageur II, the ferry that will take us to Isle Royale. It is smaller than I expected—the only other ferries I’ve been on were near Seattle, and those behemoths can carry over a thousand passengers and a hundred cars. The Voyageur is only 60’, doesn’t carry cars, and can seat only about fifty passengers. It looks old and beat up. I have to assume it is seaworthy, or I’ll spend the entire trip imagining us sinking like the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Not that anxiety about the trip would be unusual. Last night, I’d set two alarms for five-thirty to make sure we didn’t miss the ferry. I woke before either went off. Though the ferry leaves for the island at seven-thirty, we were told to arrive forty-five minutes in advance. So here we stand on the dock forty-five minutes in advance, our packs at our feet, as the sun peeks over the horizon. Waiting. There are three others waiting with us, and I assume that we are the only ones going over to Isle Royale. This pleases me. I’m hoping we’ll encounter few people on the island this late in the season.

My assumption is based on the idea that everyone, like the five of us, will follow instructions and arrive early. I’m pushing fifty, you’d think I’d know by now that this is Planet Earth and it just doesn’t work like that.

A couple of canoes are dropped off and a group of four start gathering their gear. Another canoe arrives, though these two paddlers, a father/son team, are completely packed and ready to go. Four women pull up and spend the next fifteen minutes rearranging the contents of their backpacks. People continue to arrive in small groups.

Finally, Captain Mike announces it’s time to start loading our packs onto the boat. The group of four women hump their gear over. The Captain tells them that they won’t have access to their packs during the trip, so they all have to pull their cameras and lunches out and rearrange everything again. Even as our seven-thirty departure looms, passengers keep arriving, but to my relief, we pull away from the dock precisely on time. Now, I can relax. Next stop, Isle Royale. Unless the boat sinks.

The ferry has two cabins, plus some benches outside at the bow and stern. School bus seats are bolted to a deck covered in mauve carpet. The ceiling is a waffle-like crisscross of metal beams. We find out why later when the first mate comes through using the ridges as handholds, reminiscent of a child crossing the monkey bars on a playground.

Captain Mike welcomes us to the ferry over the intercom and tells us where the bathrooms are and that it is important to read and follow the instructions on how to use them. If we start feeling seasick, we are to go on deck to get some fresh air, and if that doesn’t work, we are to "feed the fishes," not to puke in the toilets or trashcans. He is very adamant that we do not use the toilets for vomitus.

Intrigued by the toilets, I check them out partway through the trip. After reading the instructions, I determine that the point is to keep the bowl empty of water except while you are using it. The reason for this is apparent as I step in a puddle that must have sloshed out of the bowl—even on a calm day, the boat rocks quite a bit. Whoever used the toilet before me failed to follow instructions and the bowl is full of water. I can skip step one, which is to push a floor pedal and pump water into the toilet. After making use of the toilet, one then pumps the water out of the bowl, equivalent to flushing it.

Back in the outer cabin, where Julie and I staked out a school bus seat, the diesel engines are so loud that conversation is impossible. The lake is calm and I spend most of the trip on deck enjoying the fresh air. I discover that though the itinerary I designed for Julie and myself made perfect sense, everyone else has a different perception of the ideal trip. There is a zookeeper from Milwaukee who will get off at Windigo, do the Feldtmann trail and then loop through Hatchet Lake and up to the Minong Ridge Trail. A man from the Twin Cities is getting off at McCargoe Cove and hiking to Todd Harbor, Hatchet Lake, and then on to Chippewa Harbor where he’ll catch the ferry back to Minnesota. (We never learn his name, but call him 33-pound guy because he is worried he’s packed too much gear). The six canoeists are all getting off at McCargoe also, and taking a chain of lakes down to Chippewa Harbor. A pair of young men from Chicago are hiking the Greenstone Ridge Trail from its very beginning at Hidden Lake to its end at Windigo (I call them the Young Greenstoners). And a woman and her husband are on the ferry for eight hours to get to the Rock Harbor Lodge, where they will stay one night and board the ferry the next morning for another eight hour trip back to Minnesota. Pointing out a lighthouse on the horizon, she tells me her father had been part of the crew that had automated it.

We reach Windigo, the westernmost dock on the island, after two hours. Isle Royale is the largest island in the largest lake in the US. (The largest lake in the largest island in the largest lake is Siskiwit Lake, and the largest island in Siskiwit is Ryan Island. Just in case you ever need to know for a crossword or Jeopardy). Before it was made a national park in 1940, it was a resort location, boasting a total of five lodges. Today, only one survives, at Rock Harbor. In 1976, the island was designated part of the National Wilderness Preservation system and over 98% of the land is designated wilderness. That means, with the exception of Windigo and Rock Harbor, there is no electricity and no running water. My wireless phone doesn’t get service. Not even Verizon can hear us now.

Isle Royale is probably best known for the longest running wildlife research project—the study of wolves and moose on the island. Moose came over sometime in the late 19th century, and a pack of wolves came over in the late 1940s during an especially cold winter where an ice bridge formed between the island and the mainland. The moose are the wolves’ main source of food, and the wolves keep the moose population in check. We don’t expect to see any wolves, but hope to see some moose!

Everyone gets off the boat at Windigo to hear the “Leave No Trace” lecture and to register our itineraries. Ranger Lucas gives the speech. He’s in his twenties or thirties with a scruffy beard and an easy manner. He hands out seven cards, each with one of the Leave No Trace precepts on it. Each person with a card is to read it and state what it means for them. The woman with card number two reads, “Travel on durable surfaces.” What does it mean to her? “Well, we’re staying at the lodge,” she tells us, “so that’s a durable surface.”

Another of the principles is to Respect Wildlife. Among other things, that means not feeding them, even inadvertently. Lucas explains that the animals near the campsites have learned what backpacks are and that they mean food. “Don’t leave your food unattended or it will be stolen. Sodium is hard to come by here, so don’t leave your sweaty clothes or shoes out or they will disappear. You don’t want your shoes to disappear. You can’t see them, but the animals are in the woods, watching and waiting for you to turn your back.”

When he gets to number seven, “Be considerate of other visitors,” Ranger Lucas adds that we need to look out for each other, too. He tells the story of a man who had become so severely dehydrated that he was in a delirium. Other campers noticed that he was incoherent, and reported his condition to a ranger who was able to get him help. I heard this story repeated several times by my ferry-mates, so it was very effective. (The incident occurred at Daisy Farm campground, which has a ranger-in-residence. What if he’d been discovered at one of the more remote campsites, when a ranger could be several days of hiking away?)

Ranger Cindy registers us. She’s one of the happiest people I’ve ever met, just in love with her job and her life. Both she and Lucas are seasonal employees of the National Park Service, as Isle Royale is only open to visitors from mid-April through October. They have to find other ways to make a living during the rest of the year.

Then it’s back on the boat for the five hour trip to Rock Harbor, at the eastern end of the island.

Three hours later, when we make a stop at McCargoe Cove, the novelty of having reached Isle Royale has worn off. Eight hours is a long time to spend confined in a sixty foot cage. I think about zoo animals trapped for life in far smaller enclosures, with no hope of freedom, and it saddens me. I’m surprised at how many people get off at McCargoe, well over half, leaving just ten of us on board for the trip to Rock Harbor. Four are people staying at the lodge, four are hiking all the way across the island, and Julie and I never spoke with the other two. They were the ones who barely made it to the boat on time.

Finally, we dock, get our packs, pee one last time in a flush toilet, and start our hike to Three Mile campground.

Facts about getting to Isle Royale: The only ferry to Isle Royale from Minnesota leaves from Grand Portage. There are also ferries from Copper Harbor, MI and Houghton, MI. You can also get there by seaplane or in your own boat.
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Neil on

I'm really enjoying your posts Michele - thanks for sharing them!

mlloyd on

Thanks, Neil. I'm glad you are enjoying the stories.

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